One of the biggest debates in web and mobile app design-development world is whether to choose a responsive design, an adaptive design or a standalone design. The last option will be kept outside the purview of this discussion as it is the least favored by businesses building websites for their ventures since it leads to higher upfront and maintenance costs. We will still touch upon it though.
The exponential rise in mobile phone users cannot be any longer ignored by businesses. More and more mobile and tablet users are using their little hand-held devices to access the internet and have come almost at par with desktop users. And if your site is not visible with equal clarity on any device being used, you will surely lose traffic, sales, and conversions. If a customer can easily view your website on any of their devices, you have surely followed the latest norms of web design. If not, your site is probably fossilized in the old pre-mobile age.
The case for mobile-friendly sites has been further strengthened by Google’s recommendation for responsive web design which after its update on 4/21/15 ranks these sites higher. It does not go into specifics of the type of design, it broadly outlines only that a site must be accessible on mobiles and show good performance and UX.
Before choosing between responsive vs. adaptive web design, it is preferable to clear the air about what is responsive design and adaptive design.
In responsive design, the appearance of the website will change as per the viewport of the browser. Developers take the width of the browser as a variable. This determines the size of the constantly changing elements of the page. Hence, a responsive website is completely fluid, responding and adjusting to the viewport regardless of the size of the browser window, in this case, the screen.
This is primarily because a responsive design uses percentage-based CSS rules to alter the size based on the device screen. Irrespective of whether the browser is sized to 400px wide or 45,000px, the elements will auto-adjust to specific proportions, ensuring that the website has clarity and clear vision.
There are many benefits of responsive design, the most critical being that codebase does not have to change for desktop or mobile or any size in between. For designers, responsive web design is a challenge as they have to keep infinite screen sizes in mind. But then, the end result has cleaner code and better adaptability.
Similar to responsive sites, an adaptive design will also adjust to the layout of the page based on the width of the browser but in a different manner. In this form, designers create multiple renditions or versions of the same design, one for each size as decided by the developer. Each version is designated with specific browser widths called “anchor points” which guide the browser on when to move on to the next layout. Hence, the content and elements of a page would fit into the new space automatically once the viewport crosses a designated threshold.
With almost infinite screen sizes to work on, there have to be certain benchmarks for designers. Typically, a designer would create a different layout for each of the six most common viewpoints. It covers the complete range, from the smallest mobile screen size to the biggest desktop panel widths – 320px, 480px, 760px, 960px, 1200px, and 1600px.
Unlike responsive design that uses percentages, adaptive design will make use of one static layout per each anchor point, and once that is detected will adjust to the next (higher or lower) screen size. In responsive vs. adaptive design it is not easy to say which is more complex. Both are almost on equal footing.
Standalone mobile design
A passing reference may be made to this design to better understand the intricacies of various types of designs available.
This is a mobile-only website and is denoted by “m” prefix on the URL bar of a browser. It is a dedicated approach and format for mobile sites only. Once upon a time, Google delivered search engine rankings to mobile sites but today preference is given to responsive and adaptive sites.
The main problem of having two completely different websites is that there is a great amount of maintenance work required to keep both sites running optimally. With time at a premium for designers and developers today, standalone mobile design is out of favor and is unlikely to make a comeback in the near future too.
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Responsive vs. Adaptive web design – Which One to Choose?
Now that the basics of responsive and adaptive web designs are out of the way, which should you choose to design your website? There are several pros and cons of each which will now be examined in some detail.
Comparatively, responsive design takes less time and is easier to implement. It provides fewer controls over the design for every screen size but is the preferred option of web design presently. With cheap templates available in plenty for Content Management Systems like WordPress and Joomla, why would any designer wants to get into complications?
It is, therefore, simpler for designers to create a single design to be used for all screen sizes. Once this is done, they can start from the middle of the resolution and use media queries to decide the adjustments that have to be made for the higher and lower end of the resolution scale. Users will be happy at this as they will get the familiar web design across all their devices. Uniformity and seamlessness make for a heightened user experience.
The visual hierarchy of responsive web design is vital as the clarity has to be maintained as elements shuffle across the screens. Designers have to carry out sustained testing to ensure that quality is being delivered equally well on all devices. The focus should be on experience across screens like water flowing without any break from one container to another.
A case for this type of design in the responsive vs. adaptive debate is SEO. Sites with URLs that serve all devices (responsive design) are generally more search engine friendly. However, there is a flip side for all the benefits.
Since the website will “flow” from device to device, advertisements that are added might not fit into specific spaces. Secondly, download times vary between desktop and mobile devices making the flexibility of images a major issue. A large design that downloads quickly on a big screen might take more time on a mobile, thereby putting off customers who want to interact with you round the clock on the go.
As seen before, an adaptive design offers tailor-made solutions for particular screen sizes and hence theoretically ensures a better user-experience over responsive design. This type of design adapts to the user’s situational needs and capabilities. Designers typically start at the lowest resolution version and work their way to the highest one. The current standard maybe six versions but depending on your type of users you can opt for a lesser number of versions too.
Adaptive design is considered to be more appropriate to the modern user experience as advertisements are a way of life in the modern Internet-driven business environment and you cannot possibly do without them. It has been seen that responsive websites are not very receptive to advertisements but an adaptive design is. This is because designers will be creating different resolutions and advertisements can be optimized for each of them. Further, with mobile devices becoming more sophisticated by the day, you can gather data on the devices being used by most of your existing and potential customers and adjust the resolutions and advertisements accordingly.
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Another major advantage of this design is the speed. In responsive vs. adaptive web design tests, adaptive is often 2 to 3 times faster than responsive sites. This is an important factor in user-experience.
However, everything is not about user-experience when it comes to designing a website. Limitations and time and cost restrictions have to be woven into the project too. Just like responsive designs, there is a flip side to adaptive design too.
- There is more work than responsive design and hence it is a time consuming and costly alternative. It is for this reason that generally adaptive designs are usually used to retrofit existing sites so that they can be used on multiple mobile devices.
- Adaptive designers tend to leave out the users in the “middle” bracket by targeting desktop and smartphone users. The segment in the middle like tablet or netbook users is often ignored in the process. Hence it is necessary to add a link to let the user shuttle between versions.
- While search engine bots can sift through and differentiate “com” sites and “m.com” sites, they still don’t equally rank identical content over multiple URLs. That translates into adaptive design being short on SEO.
While there is, therefore, a definite tilt towards responsive design, opt for adaptive design if you can afford it. Websites that load fast are liked by both Google and users.
Responsive design permits designers to show content on the available browser space. There is thus a certain level of uniformity and consistency on how a site is displayed on a mobile device, desktop and everything in between. It remains the most popular option today.
Adaptive design, on the other hand, is more involved as the designer has several layout sizes to try out. It is an alternative to the “one-hat-fits-all” approach.
The verdict on the responsive vs. adaptive design
Choosing a design over another should be done after careful consideration. While a responsive design might seem a better option what with savings in costs, improved SEO, and a seamless experience between devices, it is necessary to check the pros and cons of both before plumping for one. Adaptive design can adjust better to the various needs of the user and hence this cannot be ignored. What is critical is not the smartest design but one that is more adaptable to change.
Before deciding on the design, think about your product or service. How can you continually engage with your users’ behavior and keep them informed? Does your design have access to users in all settings? As devices including desktops and mobile phones get more sophisticated and smarter, it is necessary that you must plan and design your website with that smartness in mind. As a business owner, you might not have the answers to all these questions. This is why it is very crucial to get in touch with a reputed and experienced web design and development agency to help you make up your mind.If you are still undecided, get in touch with us at firstname.lastname@example.org. We have long years of experience in this field and a team of expert web designers and developers to back us up.